Exterior of the DC Jail
The D.C. Jail. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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In May, NPR and The Marshall Project published a major investigation of a federal prison in Illinois, uncovering evidence of multiple inmate deaths, frequent brutality complaints, and other deplorable conditions. A little-known D.C. agency could have scooped those veteran reporters by months, but never did.

D.C.’s dryly named Corrections Information Council, created back in 1997 as an oversight body just as D.C. agreed to send local inmates into the Bureau of Prisons system, exists precisely to ferret out such problems at federal prisons and the D.C. Jail. The modest agency can’t demand changes of the feds, but it can publish reports to try and draw attention to issues at these facilities—and CIC investigators visited the Illinois prison in question, USP Thomson, in July 2021 for exactly that purpose.

The agency heard horror stories from inmates at Thomson, according to advocates working with D.C. residents incarcerated there. Prisoners complained of being shackled to beds and beaten by guards, or being held in cells the size of a parking space with another inmate for months at a time. The conditions have contributed to five killings and two alleged suicides since 2019, making it the deadliest federal prison in the nation.

The CIC had a special interest in these problems because a particularly large number of D.C. residents are housed at Thomson. The city had sent 88 inmates there as of February 2020, according to internal documents sent to Loose Lips, the ninth highest number out of the 117 facilities around the country where D.C. prisoners are incarcerated. Even after the well-publicized NPR investigation repeated many of those complaints, the agency still hasn’t released a report on Thomson.

“They saw all the problems that were going on, but never released anything,” says Rob Barton, a D.C. resident who has spent nearly 30 years in federal prisons and works with incarcerated people as part of the advocacy group More Than Our Crimes. “It’s like, what do they even do?”

Barton, who is currently being held at a federal facility in Central Florida, is not alone in wondering what’s gone wrong at the CIC. Activists watching the criminal legal system have begun pressing for the agency to gain a bit more muscle in its dealings with the BOP to try and bring such problems to light sooner. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton recently added her voice to that growing chorus, writing a Sept. 2 letter to the newly confirmed director of the BOP that argued for more authority for the CIC in the wake of the killings of two D.C. residents at a Louisiana prison.

The CIC is in the midst of renegotiating its memorandum of understanding with the federal government that allows for these prison inspections, so there is some hope for positive change (the existing agreement runs through Sept. 30). But obstacles abound.

For one, the federal government holds so much power compared to the small D.C. agency that some activists doubt any changes will fundamentally alter this imbalance. Consider that the BOP has the ability to review any report the CIC plans to issue before it’s published, a process that can delay their release indefinitely. Pam Bailey, Barton’s fellow organizer at More Than Our Crimes, suspects this is what’s happened to the Thomson investigation, dubbing the CIC’s oversight efforts a “total sham” due to this dynamic.

John Kowalko, who spent roughly six years working at the CIC, believes the agency could still be effective under those constraints if it operated more aggressively. In his time there, he felt “there was a general attitude that we shouldn’t be reporting on any negative things, because that could damage our relationship” with the BOP and D.C.’s own Department of Corrections. In fact, Kowalko remembers arguing frequently for the agency to inspect Thomson, specifically, before he left the CIC in 2020, but he was largely ignored.

“What’s the point of having any relationship if we can’t report on the stuff that’s actually occurring?” Kowalko says. “It was really sort of ridiculous.”

Officials at the CIC didn’t respond to LL’s requests for comment, nor did a spokesperson for Christopher Geldart, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice, who oversees the D.C. DOC.

BOP spokesman Donald Murphy observed in an email that the federal law creating the CIC designated it to “report to the director of the Bureau of Prisons with advice and information regarding matters affecting the District of Columbia sentenced felon population,” hinting at the agency’s view of the CIC’s subordinate role to the feds. Still, Murphy wrote that the BOP “continues to work closely with the CIC to address any concerns with the MOU” governing its access to prisons.

Advocates working on the issue believe the CIC should be pressing for a few specific changes to that MOU if it hopes to actually be an effective agency. Barton notes that the CIC is currently pretty limited in what sections of prisons it can inspect, and often can’t get access to areas where inmates are held in solitary confinement (or very similar conditions), even though that is where conditions are often most dire.

Norton made such a request for “access to all parts of the facilities” in her letter—Murphy noted in his email that the CIC can coordinate with each warden on “approved tour routes,” though he added that “the warden may prohibit touring a specific area if it will jeopardize the safety and security of the institution, inmates, staff, or the public.” Kowalko, however, often found on prison inspections that staff would use “excessive security concerns” as a delay tactic to try and wait out the CIC’s visit.

The agency also can’t make unannounced visits to BOP facilities, which distorts what investigators see when they arrive. Kowalko remembers taking his team for meals at prison cafeterias to see what inmates were eating on his visits—each time, oddly enough, the prisons served up marquis meals like fried chicken instead of the substandard fare inmates typically described.

He added that the CIC was often limited from speaking with prison staff without supervisors present. The agency can speak with inmates on these visits, but Barton believes many prisoners are “skittish” about doing so out of fear of retaliation from guards. Murphy wrote that, if inmates want to speak with the CIC confidentially, the BOP will “endeavor to accommodate these requests,” but Barton would much rather see the CIC fight for some sort of anonymous hotline to keep complainants protected.

Emily Tatro, the director of government and external affairs at the nonprofit D.C. Justice Lab, believes these sorts of changes would make some sort of difference. But she doesn’t harbor much hope, since the District (which isn’t even a state, of course) has “no power to negotiate or leverage here.” More Than Our Crimes, Barton’s group, is even advocating for the agency to get out of the on-site inspection business entirely because of these challenges, and focus instead on analyzing patterns of abusive practices across the BOP system. They released a detailed report calling for the creation of an independent federal oversight body instead.

“I think they’re doing the best they can with what they have,” Tatro says. “BOP is a really strong institution that’s difficult to make progress with.”

Kowalko believes there’s a grain of truth in that assertion, but he sees the agency’s culture as the most fundamental problem. He started out at the CIC as an intern when it employed just one full-time staff member, and watched it grow to an organization with 10 employees, yet its output and ambition never really changed.

“They have 10 times the amount of staff that they did 10 years ago, and they’re doing a fraction of the work,” Kowalko says. “And that’s because there was this attitude that, ‘Well, we’re going to upset somebody at the DOC and we could lose access, or we’re going to upset the mayor’s office if we take this stance, and that’s going to impact our ability to get additional funding next year.’”

Kowalko was particularly frustrated about the deference to Bowser from CIC executive director Donald Isaac, who took over the job in 2018 after spending years in other roles in her administration. The CIC is technically an independent agency, which answers to a five-member board of directors rather than one of Bowser’s deputies, yet Kowalko says Isaac always acted as if his prime directive was to avoid embarrassing Bowser or the DOC.

That’s why some advocates see an obvious alternative: Strip the CIC of its oversight of the D.C. Jail and hand that responsibility over to a fully independent entity free of Bowser’s influence. The CIC could still maintain its oversight of federal prisons, but why shouldn’t a local agency have power over the local jail? Bowser and the DOC would have to be a lot more responsive to such a group, theoretically. The change would also free up the CIC to focus specifically on the feds.

“They’ve mostly been absent, just not doing an effective job of oversight of the jail at all these last few years,” says Nassim Moshiree, the policy director of the ACLU of D.C. “Meanwhile, we keep hearing about the same issues cropping up there over and over again … Creating an independent oversight body won’t solve all those problems right away, but it would be an effective tool.”

Kowalko heartily agrees, noting that the CIC last inspected the jail’s Central Detention Facility in March, despite a trio of deaths in rapid succession there this summer. The ACLU has been able to force some changes at the jail via legal action, but Moshiree believes there needs to be an independent review board empowered to make frequent, unannounced visits there to keep closer tabs on conditions. And the CIC just doesn’t seem equipped to do so.

The D.C. Council could legislate the creation of this oversight board, but lawmakers have learned repeatedly over the years that asking the mayor to stand up a new agency that she doesn’t support can be an uphill battle. Moshiree is optimistic, however, that the Council could design something like the city’s Office of Police Complaints, which she believes has been “largely very effective” and operates with a good deal of independence even though it is an executive agency. Tatro suggested that the Council and mayor could split appointees to the board, for instance, to make sure that they’re “not all accountable to the same people.”

Moshiree and her colleagues in the legal advocacy community believe there’s broad support on the Council for this new agency, considering the growing frustration on display during DOC oversight hearings, but that has yet to translate into any legislation.

Tatro says her group and others are “still working on bill language and will have to make a decision, strategically, if it makes sense to introduce something this fall.” She says the 50th anniversary of the inmate rebellion at the D.C. Jail in October could be an “excellent hook” for this legislative push, but she acknowledges that the Council will be swamped when it returns from its summer recess. The end of the year also marks the end of the Council’s legislative session, so any bill that hasn’t passed before the calendar turns to 2023 will need to be re-introduced.

All these debates about reform can feel a bit alien to prisoners like Barton, who has been incarcerated since he was 16. As arguments about oversight persist, he says prisoners remain “out of sight, out of mind” for most people, as their living conditions go unchanged.

At his facility, he says, inmates can generally only leave their cells for two hours a day. When they do, they crowd around the six phones and four computers that serve as their only links to family and friends on the outside. With 120 people in his unit and just a few hours available each day, fights start to break out. Guards tend to respond by cracking down even harder, forcing inmates to stay in their cells even longer.

“The way we incarcerate in America is so backwards,” Barton says. “It’s just not an environment that’s conducive to rehabilitation.”

It’s a familiar story for Kowalko, who has seen that dynamic play out at prisons all over the country. It’s why he hopes so fervently for some real oversight from the CIC (and perhaps others). But he’s not holding his breath.

“We had a really great opportunity when the CIC started to be the first in the country with effective prison oversight, just really change the way we incarcerate people,” Kowalko says. “I’m so sad we lost that.”